Whether flying or crawling, hopping or dropping, we want to avoid contact with bugs at all costs, and need to understand how effectively the repellents of our choice actually work and why. Also, what are the health costs for choosing some of the strong chemicals which promise to repel every blood-sucking, biting or stinging critter under the sun?

The best known chemical is DEET (N,N-diethyl- meta-toluamide), an ingredient in hundreds of insect repellents. Sometimes it is in high concentrations, even up to 100 percent. This mosquito repellent was developed in the US in 1946 for military use. It has shown to work in the same way as paralyzing nerve gas used in warfare. It blocks the mosquito’s receptors from sensing the sweat or CO2 given off by a human. It was approved for general use by the public in 1957. The trouble is, DEET has been shown to cause harm to the brain and nervous system, especially in children. Absorbed through the skin, this chemical, or Biocide, does more than repel insects. It can cause neurological changes and can cause harm to a child’s developing nervous system. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-it-true-that-the-deet/  Reports and research studies talk about the fact that if used sporadically, and not repeatedly applied, it is not as harmful.  Can we ensure however, that insects only need repelling sporadically? Or do we keep our children inside for most of the summer, just to use DEET occasionally to avoid such damage to their health? Hmm, how about alternatives, which may be effective while more natural and therefore closer to the body’s normal healthy process and therefore less harmful?

Another chemical is Picaridin, a pesticide thatrepels insects, ticks and chiggers. It is a synthetic compound first made in the 1980s. This is a naturally occurringrepellent made to resemble the compound piperine, a chemical which is found in the group of plants that are used to produce black pepper. Picaridin has been widely used as an insect repellent in Europe and Australia, but has only been available in the United States since 2005. It has undergone extensive tests and research, to find out what happens when it is absorbed, whether it is harmful, and if it is damaging to the environment. It is often put together with lemon eucalyptus oil – which is not safe for children under the age of 10 years. This is because eucalyptus oil contains menthol and cineole, which imitate the cold receptors in the lungs; also found with peppermint oil and rosemary oil. This type of oil can trigger a reaction in young children which slows down their breathing, sometimes dangerously. The FDA warns against using products on children under the age of 3.

There are many good essential oils to repel biting critters that are safe to use around young children, such as Citronella, the popular oil we associate with outdoor candles and sprays. Rosalina (Lavender Tea Tree), Patchouli, Geranium and Cedarwood, Lavender and Lemongrass, as well as Citronella, can be used topically on children over 3 years of age. These oils can be used in a diffuser or candle with children under 3 years. It is not advised, however, to use essential oils around babies 6 months or less. The younger the child the greater the dilution, so make sure to check the dilution rates recommended for specific age groups.

Your main enemies are mosquitoes, and the concern that they can carry diseases, such as West Nile, which infects thousands of Americans each year and can result in death, according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control). Your other worrying enemies are ticks, known to spread Lyme disease, which has more than doubled over the past 15 years with around 30,000 confirmed cases recorded per year. The prime time to watch out for ticks is between late April and mid-July, from nymph to adult, but still be cautious at later dates. Do not only rely on deterrents, since it is important to perform “tick checks” at the end of the day after being outside in any area that could be harboring those creepy-crawlies. Check pets which have been outside through any undergrowth, since they can bring in little hitchhikers that may crawl onto their humans. Wear light colored clothing while out in the woods and apply repellents to your clothing.

The EWG (Environmental Working Group) advises against buying any sunscreen with chemical insect repellent, since it is necessary to re-apply these products more often than it is safe. Below is the full article on the advice, which goes over the choices and risks. DEET is listed as a “reasonable if imperfect choice” which concerns me as a health advisor. I feel that people need to know allthe risks and make the best choice, especially for their children.


If you are someone who seems to get more than your fair share of interest from biting insects, you may be wondering why you are so delicious. People with type O blood are 20 percent more likely to be bitten than people with type A, and people with type B are somewhere in the middle. People actually secrete a chemical signal through their skin which indicates what blood type they are. Who knew mosquitoes were picky? Another reason that biting insects find their prey is through the emission of carbon dioxide, so the greater the amount the easier the prey is found. Children may breathe out less CO2 in volume so are bitten less than their larger parents.

You might want to cut out the beer from your next BBQ if you do not like to get bitten by mosquitos. Studies show just one beer can make a difference – and you become tastier to bugs. It is thought that this is because of the increase in the amount of ethanol excreted in sweat, but these same studies are still out at the bar trying to figure out the exact reason.

The recommendations for DEET-free herbal insect repellent through the Pesticide Action Network America (PANNA) included their top choice as Herbal Armor and then Buzz Away.  If the repellents are being used around children, buy specific child-friendly essential oil blends, safe for specific age groups. These offer superior coverage and protection – and check the times to repeat the coverage to ensure continual protection. On a side note, interestingly enough, the inventor of Herbal Armor decided to mix his blend together after a bottle of DEET spray leaked in his backpack and melted the plastics and destroyed the fabrics, causing him to wonder what it was actually doing to his skin and health.

With potentially health-harming chemicals and health-threatening insects, it is important to educate yourself, rather than to trust everything you hear. I have included some links to the facts referenced in this article at the bottom. I encourage everyone to stay informed and to be aware of the choices they need to make for their own health.

Sally Warren, PhD
Board Certified Traditional Naturopath
Metro Integrative

Smithsonian Magazine, The Hippy Homemaker, NPIC, CDC, Treehugger, Stop Pest Info, CBS

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition. The information in this article is for educational purposes only.